• Japanese Macaque eating Sweet Potato

Consciousness and the Prehistory of Language

By the early 20th century, philosophers had expended vast quantities of ink in the quest to explaining the nature of consciousness, forming a rich and detailed vocabulary and elaborate hierarchies of concepts to describe the minutia of mental states.  But this search for truth saw them drift further and further into the realms of abstraction and saw certainty slip further from their grasp. The Austrian artist Gustav Klimt reflected the anxious zeitgeist of early 20th century philosophy when he was commissioned to paint the ceilings of the University of Vienna. The panel entitled ‘philosophy’ was a haunting, nightmarish portrait of a species lost in the labyrinth of thought. It is ironic that Martin Heidegger, a philosopher famous for his maddeningly complex prose, should be the one to get closest to escaping this maze, precisely by rejecting core tenets of the philosophy of the age.

Heidegger never even used the word ‘consciousness’, preferring the peculiar phrase term “being-in-the-world”. For him, the notions of separate realms of subject and object that had framed the philosophical debate in the West for centuries, were flawed, and to ask the question in this way was to bias the answers we got. Building on the ideas of his predecessor, Husserl, being-in-the-world is a form of flow; a perpetual engagement, or entanglement, with the environment. To his mind, to be conscious was, by definition, to be conscious of something, be that a physical or mental object. Mind and world were not only fundamentally linked, but atemporal; strewn across fictitious past and imaginary future.

Environment and the Self

In the last few decades, Heidegger’s dense philosophy has – almost unwittingly – found support from thinkers building on the fields of neuroscience and psychology.  Professor Alva Noe has published several papers and books in which he argues that cognition is more than just the brain and requires active engagement with the world. Citing Paul Bach-y-Rita’s work on sensory substitution and the discovery of neuroplasticity, he writes “What governs the character of our experience – what makes our experience the kind of experience it is – is not the neural activity in the brain on its own; it is rather, our ongoing dynamic relation to objects, a relation that [...] clearly responds to our neural responsiveness to changes in our relation to things” It is also becoming clear that our sense of Self is also relative to our environment; professor of Philosophy Evan Thompson similarly thinks “Our human sense of self is intersubjective, it simply cannot be understood by simply going inside the brain and looking at neural patterns of activity. It is like looking at Gothic architecture by simply studying the stones”. [3] Philosopher and neuroscientist Thomas Metzinger asserts “The phenomenal self is as process… a reified time-slice of an ongoing process in which your brain makes an image of you, your body, your emotional state and your social connections”

To use the metaphor of the age, consciousness is a form of information processing with two key variables; bandwidth, roughly understood as the amount of sensory information that an entity can collect, and processing capacity; analogous to the complexity of the nervous system. Our primeval ancestor’s iterative awakening to the world was, itself, the process of a complexification of its anatomy and expansion of these two overlapping systems over the span of millions of years. The more sensory information flowing through an organism, by definition, the more aware of its environment the organism becomes. There thus exists a spectrum of consciousness across the natural world to which we can apply our labels – such as ‘awareness’, ‘sentience’ , ‘cognition’ and so forth – to entities based on their levels of ‘bandwidth’ and ‘processing capacity’. Consciousness, then, is a fractal phenomenon rooted in the levels of environmental data an entity can ‘parse’. But how far down the phylogenetic tree does the phenomena go? Traditionally such answers have been anthropocentric and anthropomorphic; relative to how much an organism resembles ourselves. We have no problem thinking a dog is conscious, but the thought that insects are conscious raises a smile. To imagine a plant is, in any sense, conscious seems absurd, yet we know they interact with their environments in reaction to sensory data; albeit in a predictable manner.

Are all entities capable of ‘information processing’ conscious? Is a virus conscious? By most definitions it is not even alive. It seems absurd because we burden the word ‘consciousness’ with our own essentially human, subjective sense of being. When the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked in 1974 “What is it like to be a bat?”, he was provoking philosophers and scientists to consider forms of experiencing the world that are fundamentally different to our own: alien forms of being-in-the-world. Such phenomenal experiences are hard to imagine; precisely because to emulate them, we would have to be them. Other philosophers, in the tradition of Spinoza, argue from the panpsychism position; that matter itself is in some sense ‘aware’. This somewhat contentious topic is something I’d like to delve into in some depth later; for now, I would like to explore the form of consciousness common to humans.

Humans differ from other organisms in that our biological sensory apparatus is comparatively poor, our hearing in limited and our sense of smell almost nonexistent compared to most mammals’ abilities. We can see in only a thin sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum, having only three colour receptors in our eyes compared to the seventeen of the mantis shrimp. The crucial difference between us and other creatures is that our sensory system is augmented by cultural metadata we have accumulated over tens of thousands of years, distributed across all living minds and archived in physical media and the technological constructs we inhabit. We exist in an information ecology so deeply woven with the phenomenal world that the two seem indistinguishable. Our extended infancies are a consequence of our brains being ‘formatted’ with the symbolic syntax of the surrounding society.

By adopting the language and traits of the culture we are thrown into, we strive to become a part of it; to define ourselves within it. And to become a part of it is to change it, and to do this is to alter the physical structure of the world. This feedback process is ancient and precedes the modern conception of language by millions of years. To explore its origins, we need to look at three interrelated and reinforcing traits of pre-humans; sociality, technology and vocalisation.

Sociality and Brain Growth

There are many theories, often competing, to explain the growth of brain size in early humans.  The Social Brain Hypothesis is the idea that our large brains emerged through trying to ‘mind read’ what others in the group were thinking through a combination of sophisticated body language and interpreting the motivations and intentions of others. This amounted to not just having our own thoughts and motivations, but emulating those of others in the group; juggling these personas to imagine complex chains of future scenarios based on various outcomes of different alliances. Importantly, such a theory would select on the basis of both long term memory (to retain information of past behaviours) and working memory (to construct future scenarios). Both abilities would also be useful in the construction of tools, which requires forethought and experience of the elements of the phenomenal world.

A related theory, known as the Cooperative Eye Hypothesis, argues the human trait of having visible ‘whites’ in their eyes – unusual in primates – made it easier to read facial expressions and more of a challenge to hide motivation. As such, it acted as a multiplier of social complexity and cognitive evolution. What both of these theories share is the ability to ‘emulate’ the minds of others in a much more sophisticated manner than other primates.  Perhaps this drive to conceptualise the thoughts and motivations of others became a precursor to the ‘inner voice’, providing a foundation for the evolution of language.

Sociality is almost, by definition, essential for language.  It is also important to note that self-awareness, as far as we can tell, exists exclusively in social animals (with perhaps the exception of the octopus). With self-awareness also came “theory of mind”; the awareness that there are other creatures who think and feel like you. Neurologist V.P Ramachandran argues that mirror neurons play an important role in the origins of imitative behaviour and later, of language itself.  During Italian Neurophysiologist’s Giacomo Rizzolatti’s research of macaques, it was observed that the pathways of the brain that activate when they perform a task, also activated when they observed other macaques doing the same thing.

Technology and Imitation

A famous study of Japanese macaques from 1953 gives us a fascinating insight into how tool-making behaviours can sweep through populations like contagions. Researchers noticed a young macaque called Imo, who – on an apparent whim – began washing sweet potatoes before she ate them. Ten years later, the rest of the group had copied her, with even newborns mimicking her behaviour. In another, much more viral instance of Imo’s innovation, she developed a method of sorting sand from wheat by throwing the mixture in water and letting the sand sink, allowing her to harvest the floating wheat.  Fellow macaques, seeing the potential, then imitated her. Five years later, the entire population of macaques in Japan used the new method [4] [6]. This indicates imitative behaviour in anthropoid apes goes back at least 25 million years, when the macaque and human lineages diverged.

Even more sophisticated behaviour has been observed in creatures closer to humans on the phylogenetic tree, with much clearer evolutionary consequences. Dutch primatologist Caarel van Schaik spent seven years with a group of orangutans in the Suaq swamps of Sumatra that had a remarkably rich technological culture. As van Schaik describes;

“They shape sticks to get at honey and insects. Then they pick another kind of stick to go after the scrumptious fat-packed seeds of the Neesia fruit. One of them figured out that you could unleash the seeds with a stick and that was a big improvement in their diet.”

Behaviours that lead to extracting more calories from a fruit – when multiplied as they spread through a group – can confer an evolutionary edge over time, allowing a pool of X orangutans to grow proportionately more numerous than rivals. van Schaik believed that, as the group grew in number, innovation became statistically more likely, resulting in a positive feedback loop of innovation and growth; “Populations in which individuals had more chances to observe others in action would show a greater diversity of learned skills than would populations offering fewer learning opportunities.”[6] One of the most interesting aspects of van Schaik’s work is that, across the rivers from his field of study, another smaller population of essentially identical orangutans did not possess such a culture, but clearly had the genetic capacity for it.  In other words, imitative behaviour patterns spread by direct experience can give one population an edge over another, and lead to autocatalytic feedback loops of innovation over competitors.

Vocal Transmission and Environmental Data

Of course, imitation itself is not language. The most obvious component of language is the capacity to transmit environmental information vocally, something common to anthropoid apes in the form of alarm calls. Rudimentary forms of syntax have been observed in several species of monkey. Recent studies of Campbell’s Monkeys in the Ivory Coast showed they had three distinct alarm calls on the basis of which environmental threat was posed to the group. One – “boom” – indicated a falling branch or to induce the group to move, a second, “krak” indicated a leopard sighting, and a third “hok” – warned of a nearby eagle. These were also altered using a basic syntax, for example an “-oo” after the leopard signal of “krak” implied a general threat, not specifically a leopard.  In all of the anthropoid apes, limitations in brain size and vocal dexterity seem to place a limit on the fidelity of this type of data transmission. Importantly, this is a one-way signal.

In prehistory then, there were three patterns containing the seeds of language. Firstly, strong social intelligence that led to a large brain and an advanced ‘theory of mind’ that may have endowed the ability to construct potential future scenarios in a social context.  Secondly, a deeply embedded capacity for imitation, occasionally manifesting in a tool-making ability that confers evolutionary advantages to the group. Thirdly, the ability to transfer information ‘long range’ by use of vocal transmission, perhaps augmented by basic forms of syntax. It was only a matter of time before these behaviours converged.


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